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Ivan Little: Day I quizzed Emma Pengelly's gunrunner dad at loyalist blockade

By Ivan Little

Published 01/10/2015

Peter Robinson (second from left) and Noel Little (right) at an Ulster Resistance rally in 1986
Peter Robinson (second from left) and Noel Little (right) at an Ulster Resistance rally in 1986
Noel Little

The gunrunning father of the DUP's newest MLA was one of the leaders of a massive loyalist blockade in Markethill that lasted for several days during the Drumcree protest nearly 20 years ago - and which led to the Army airlifting SDLP MP Seamus Mallon out of his home town to travel to Westminster.

And Noel Little had also been photographed with a red-bereted Peter Robinson 10 years before, during the early days of the shadowy Ulster Resistance movement, which the Co Armagh man helped set up.

Little has told friends that he's "deeply proud" of his barrister-turned-politician daughter Emma Pengelly, who earlier this week told the Belfast Telegraph of her unconditional love for her father. She also said she neither wore her experience with a badge of shame nor a badge of pride.

Mrs Pengelly worked as a special adviser at Stormont, first for the Rev Ian Paisley and then for his successor Peter Robinson. The current DUP leader stepped aside as First Minister last month as a result of the political crisis caused by the murder of Short Strand man Kevin McGuigan, which police have linked to the IRA.

An ex-DUP official who didn't want to be named said it was his understanding that Little and Mr Robinson had once been close allies.

This appears to be borne out by the picture of the two men striding through Portadown together at one of the inaugural rallies held by Ulster Resistance in 1986.

They both wore berets and in between them in the photograph was the former chairman of the Ulster Clubs organisation. This was aligned to Ulster Resistance, which along with the UDA and UVF shared out a huge shipment of guns from South Africa in 1988.

The UDA's guns were found in two cars after a police operation in Portadown and one of its leaders, convicted killer Davy Payne, was later jailed for 19 years as a result.

Little was arrested after his telephone number was found on the back of Payne's hand. But after seven days of questioning he was released without charge.

The DUP tried to wash its hands of Ulster Resistance, but the next year Little and two other loyalists, Samuel Quinn and James King, were arrested after the French security services swooped on a Paris hotel in April 1989.

South African diplomat Daniel Storm and American arms dealer Douglas Bernhardt were also held.

In court it was said the loyalists were trying to get guns from South Africa in exchange for information about advanced missile systems after parts of a Blowpipe missile and a model of a Javelin missile went missing from a Short Brothers plant at Castlereagh and from a Territorial Army depot in Newtownards.

During the court case Little was described as the main instigator of the plot.

After two years on remand, Little and the other two Ulstermen escaped with suspended sentences and fines.

After Paris, virtually nothing was heard of Little.

But on July 10, 1996 he gave me a rare TV interview after I went to Markethill to report on claims that the town had been completely sealed off by loyalists as part of a province-wide campaign of protests over the refusal to allow Drumcree Orangemen to march down the nationalist Garvaghy Road.

On arrival I found articulated lorries, vans, cars and felled trees blocking every way in and out of the Co Armagh town and the main Newry to Armagh road.

Planks of wood with nails in them had also been placed across a number of the roads.

One banner on a barricade said 'Hang Gerry Adams', and a photograph of the Sinn Fein leader was also displayed.

Most of the protesters were wearing Orange sashes and some of them hid their faces with scarves.

The demonstrators allowed me and my camera crew into Markethill and when I asked to interview a spokesman I was taken to see Little, whose face I recognised in an instant.

Little (right), who wore an Orange Order collarette indicating he was a past master of a lodge, told me: "Normally we uphold the law and support the police and so on. But there comes a time when you must stand up for your democratic rights.

"And if you are not able to do that in a constitutional fashion, then you have to make a protest."

Little said demonstrators were determined "to see this thing through and to win our point", and he added that the protesters would not attack or intimidate anyone.

But that was not the way Seamus Mallon saw the blockade.

After an Army helicopter flew him out of the town to allow him to travel on to London, Mr Mallon, who was the SDLP's deputy leader at the time, told me in a telephone interview: "I myself tried to get three times to Westminster but I wasn't able to get anywhere near to the airport. No one is able to move into work or to go about their business in any shape or form.

"That is the reality of not just Markethill, but the entire area of mid-Armagh where the people are being held absolutely in siege."

He said he viewed the situation as the most tense period he had witnessed in a quarter-of-a-century.

"I think the potential for danger is enormous," he said.

But Little denied Mr Mallon's claims. "Nobody has approached him. Certainly he won't be intimidated or pressurised. Certainly not by any member of the Orange Order," he said.

I asked Little what would happen if the SDLP man came back to Markethill during the blockade. He replied: "I would assume he would be able to come and go."

Little said that the protesters wouldn't lift their blockade and would miss the Twelfth two days later if necessary.

"We can have the Twelfth some other time, if you know what I mean," he said.

"We can have a celebration at the end of the month just as easily as now. Certainly none of us are in any mood to go to a Twelfth demonstration with things going on as they are."

Little, an ex-UDR man who formerly worked for an education board, no longer lives in Markethill. He's believed to be based in Belfast.

Three years ago a national newspaper put an allegation to him that he was centrally involved in the first gunrunning plot for Ulster Resistance and other loyalist paramilitaries as well as the Paris operation.

He was quoted as replying: "My position is that I wasn't involved."

But he added: "I would deny it even if I was."

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